Free access to legal information imperative
One of the greatest benefits of wide-scale Internet access has been better access to legal information, both for attorneys and legal consumers. Expensive, space-hogging law libraries have been replaced by more affordable online portals that provide instantaneous access to all types of legal information.
In the early days of the Internet, most of this information was hidden behind costly paywalls, such as Westlaw and LexisNexis. Even so, online subscription databases provided more convenient, affordable access to legal information than ever before. Eventually, less expensive options for legal research came along, offered by companies such as Fastcase, thus increasing competition, resulting in new offerings from all companies and price reductions across the board.
Over time, much of the information found behind paywalls became available for free — although not always in formats that were as robust or easily searchable — in large part due to the efforts the good folks at Cornell’s Legal Information Institute and Justia.
Another Web-based service that greatly increased access to legal information is the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) platform. PACER provides online access to United States federal court documents and was launched in 1988. At first it was only available via computer terminals located in libraries or office buildings but in 2001 that changed when PACER was made accessible via the Web. Although access isn’t free, it is affordable, at 10 cents per page.
Despite the benefits of online access, the system has been widely criticized as being clunky and not particularly intuitive. Fortunately, there are products available to improve the interface and make it more accessible, such as PacerPro (online: pacerpro.com). PacerPro is a free service offering a user-friendly overlay that improves the PACER interface by increasing its functionality and streamlining and improving the overall experience of searching for and downloading documents using PACER.
Of course, with or without an improved interface, PACER’s value is inherently tied to the quality of the information available to the public through its system. That’s why in August, even more criticism was levied toward PACER when it was announced that as part of a planned overhaul of the system’s architecture, entire categories of documents from five courts had been removed from the system. This announcement resulted in an outcry of dissent from those in favor of open and unimpeded public access to information intended by statute to be freely accessible to everyone.
Of course, most of the documents removed from the system are “historical” documents from older matters. Even so, the removal of the databases means additional hurdles for those seeking to obtain those documents, most of which can now only be obtained directly from the courts that produced the records.
For those concerned about unimpeded access to federal court records, there’s always the RECAP platform, a crowd-sourced service that hosts free archives of records already downloaded by other PACER users. RECAP (online: recapthelaw.org), which is available via a browser extension, currently houses 3 million documents and, according to Brian Carver, an assistant professor at University of California at Berkeley School of Information who co-founded RECAP, they are trying to determine if the courts will provide them with the documents removed from PACER so that they can make them available on RECAP.
For now, however, the data that was unceremoniously removed without warning is no longer accessible via PACER and a blow has been struck to the public’s right to have unfettered access to legal information. The Internet is a powerful tool and one that has helped to increase access to legal information. But if that information is hidden away in the dusty recesses of our nation’s federal courthouses and not made available in digital format, then their availability to the public is illusory, at best. In the 21st century there is no excuse for the failure to make our public judicial documents readily accessible. Let’s hope this short sighted decision is rectified — sooner rather than later.
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney and Director of Business Development and Community Relations at MyCase, intuitive web-based law practice management software for the modern law firm. She is also a GigaOM Pro Analyst and is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes four legal blogs and can firstname.lastname@example.org.